These Two Sides of My Brain Need to Have a Meeting

Posted on Facebook by my cousin Ben, a Chicago Blackhawks fan, sometime Monday night:

Possibly the worst game of hockey I have ever witnessed….

He’s wrong, but not in the sense that he can be blamed for. The Blackhawks lost at home, 4-0, and were eliminated from the playoffs by the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes, that owner-less team that’s slowly bankrupting the city of Glendale, won its first playoff series since moving to the desert in 1996.

Young Benjamin was, at best, a toddler when the Jets left Winnipeg. That is not what this is about. The source of his misguided opinion of quality hockey is simple: the Hawks are his team, they lost, and now they are no longer playing hockey. Attachment creates bias and a series of emotions that can often hide the truth.

Unburdened by such feelings, I really enjoyed watching Phoenix shut out the Blackhawks on Monday night. It was a good game. Mike Smith played an incredible first period, keeping Phoenix alive while it floundered on offense for much of the game’s early stages. Chicago, despite trailing in the series, had momentum and home ice; sparked by an overtime winner from its captain in the previous game.

But like so many playoff games that feature strong goaltending, the rare counterattack proved fruitful for the team once on its heels. Phoenix had two shots in the first period and just four in the second, but one of them went in. Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s gentle shot from the point on the power play changed the feeling of quiet desperation in the United Center to downright dread. All that work for nothing.

In the third period, the Coyotes evened the pace and scored three more goals, easily moving on against a team a year removed from a Stanley Cup win. Phoenix will now play Nashville, another team with strong net play that knocked off a Western Conference power over the weekend.

I should have strong opinions about a hockey team plunging a city further and further into debt. I should have thoughts about what it means for the State of the League that the Preds and Coyotes will play 4-7 times on national television over the next two weeks.

I should still be thinking about Raffi Torres and headshots and hand-wringing and the things that have defined the first fortnight of playoff hockey. Hair-grabbing and head-smashing and other moves you see at independent wrestling showcases I’ve never attended. I should be concerned and have thoughts and actively engage in the conversation.

I’m not.

One of my goals this postseason is simple: enjoy hockey. After a trying year full of bad Sabres games, I’m ready to just watch hockey with as little attachment as possible. Because it’s fun to watch good, interesting games played at a high level.

As far as I’m concerned, the postseason has delivered thus far. The hockey has been good, and there has been a lot of it available. The Panthers can skate and are surprisingly fun to watch. The West was wild, the East is still tight. Boston/Washington has been as close a 2/7 series can possibly be. It’s been fun to watch Ottawa’s Anderson outplay New York’s Lundqvist at times, too.

With three Game 7s on tap this week, I’m finding it hard to complain about the quality of hockey we’ve seen this postseason. There has been drama and big saves and all those things that come with eight different series being played out simultaneously. I’ve had fun watching it, something I haven’t been able to say for some time now.

Fredorrarci, a fellow Arsenal fan, wrote a piece called All You Need is Hate on The Classical that gets close to what’s going on in my head. This is what happened when he watched the FA Cup semi-final between Spurs and Chelsea:

As the final whistle sounded, I was left dazed. It took me some minutes to come around to what had just happened: my hatred for each team had been in perfect balance and had been cancelled out. What remained was football, pure and simple, just as Pelé surely intended the day he invented it. It was a revelation. I now saw what I had to do. I had to cultivate a contempt for each and every team in football in order to reveal the true beauty of the beautiful game. Through ruthless and total partisanship, I would have my liberation. It would be like old Zen Buddhism himself had been reincarnated as a football fan.

It’s not the hatred that works for me. Those feelings I had in my youth have dulled. I want to appreciate hockey, the sport as a whole, and not worry about much else for a bit. I’ve spent too much time over the last two seasons lost in far too many things. Let’s get back to hockey, take it for what it is, and go from there.

It was easy to get lost in the violent narrative of the Penguins/Flyers series, but even here I found something very different. That series was awesome, and not just that Sunday afternoon when James Neal lost his mind.

With that series we got answers to questions we rarely can ask. What happens when a good goaltender can’t stop the puck and you don’t have any other options? Watching the Penguins suffer a series of defensive meltdowns is one thing, but watching them post a 10-goal effort somewhere in between was stunning.

With Brent Johnson sitting on the bench, Marc-Andre Fleury stood naked in the blue paint for six straight games. Somehow, the Penguins managed to win two of those before the roof caved in. It was strangely exhilarating and odd and I couldn’t stop watching. I only hope that the remaining hockey can offer something so interesting.

Maybe I am changing as a hockey fan. I know the league is supposed to be changing, and the world around us certainly is as well.

Perhaps my moral compass is askew here, and not thinking about player safety means I don’t see athletes as humans. Maybe my objectivity has slid dangerously towards apathy, and I should value the people creating my product more. That’s something to consider.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how much of this is real. This reaction, this discussion about The Most Important Thing that we have day after day. In many ways it feels the same as it always has, just spinning at a higher RPM on bigger platforms. The issues themselves are important, but I wonder how many conversations that revolve around them really are.

Eventually the record will play at my speed and I’ll feel like a better, more worldly person. For now I’m focusing on the score and all the beautiful ways the numbers grow higher. The ugly can wait.